Review: Putting Arthur Miller on Trial in ‘Fall’

Posted June 1, 2018 8:40 p.m. EDT

BOSTON — The facts are damning enough.

In 1966, Arthur Miller’s wife, photographer Inge Morath, gave birth to a son who had Down syndrome. She named him Daniel. On medical advice, common at the time, the couple placed Daniel in an institution rather than raise him at home. Miller did not visit him there or at Southbury Training School — the facility, later exposed for its neglect and horrors, where Daniel was moved at the age of 4. For the rest of Miller’s life, he never acknowledged his son publicly, not even mentioning him in his 1987 autobiography.

This history was thoroughly documented in a Vanity Fair article in 2007, shocking those who thought of Miller, who died in 2005, as a great American moralist. In works like “Death of a Salesman” and “All My Sons,” he specifically addressed the relationship between a father’s failure and a society’s shame. More generally, the cost of ethical compromise was his lifelong theme.

If these revelations dislodged Miller from his Great Man pedestal, so be it. (The plays still stand.) But I’m not sure they make him fair game for a speculative docudrama like “Fall,” by Bernard Weinraub, playing at the Huntington Theater Company’s Calderwood Pavilion here.

Working within the framework of now-familiar facts, Weinraub, a former New York Times journalist, has built scenes, dialogue and even characters from what is at best inference and at worst convenient tendentiousness.

Some might say that’s a playwright’s job description — one that Miller himself followed in autobiographical works like “After the Fall,” about his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. But at least “After the Fall” was presented, however thinly, as fiction. Weinraub labors to give “Fall” a nonfiction aura, pinning its scenes to real events and including interstitial documentary material like newspaper headlines and verbatim extracts from Miller’s anti-war speeches.

It doesn’t take long to realize that though Miller (Josh Stamberg) and Morath (Joanne Kelly) must have agonized about their decision, and that it must have caused strains in their relationship, the dialogue in which those conflicts are dramatized is necessarily invented and mostly sounds like it. Whenever the writing strays from the bare facts, it feels as if written from bullet points on 3-by-5 cards.

This is bad enough in scenes that guess at the exact temperature (and wording) of the couple’s wrangling. But Weinraub has also provided Miller and Morath with foils, if foils can be made of wood.

Miller’s loyal producer, Robert Whitehead (John Hickok), is more like a backhoe, constantly providing information to the audience by telling Miller things he would already know. And Morath’s obstetrician, Paula Wise (Joanna Glushak), is a font of Wikipedia-flavored information: “Times have changed,” she helpfully points out when encouraging the Millers to deinstitutionalize Daniel, having at first encouraged the opposite. “In the last couple of years there’s been more talk, more money for research.”

Perhaps Paula Wise talks like that because she never existed.

These small signs of authorial bad faith wouldn’t matter so much if they did not bring into question the larger argument of the play, which is built on a series of coincidences that are supposed to be ironically damning. They cause you to wonder how Morath was pregnant with Daniel, as “Fall” depicts, during the first rehearsals for “After the Fall,” in 1963. (She would have to have been pregnant for three years.) And did she really read the first report of conditions at Southbury while sipping Champagne on the same night Miller received a Kennedy Center honor in 1984?

Dramatic license, perhaps, and yet not dramatic enough; the production, directed by the Huntington’s artistic director, Peter DuBois, alternates too mechanically between whipping the same questionable points into crises and a sort of reactionary idleness. And though the cast — which also briefly includes Nolan James Tierce, an actor with Down syndrome, as Daniel — surfs the crests ably, only Kelly creates from the thin materials a deep character and a devastating one at that.

It helps that Morath’s unhappiness is demonstrably authentic. In real life she was the one who visited Daniel and suffered from what she knew firsthand of his life at Southbury. “It’s like a Hieronymus Bosch painting,” she told a friend. So when, in the play, she argues for bringing Daniel home, at whatever cost, you believe she would excoriate Miller by sniping: “Let ‘The Crucible’ pay for it.”

But Miller, not having recorded his thoughts about his son, cannot defend himself here. I’m not sure Weinraub would let him anyway. He seems to want to take Miller down and not just as a man who made an abominable choice like thousands of other parents in his day.

“Fall” argues that this failing further invalidates him as a great dramatic moralist. A less mean-spirited approach might conclude instead that his failing is what made him one.

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Through June 16 at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston; 617-266-0800, huntingtontheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.